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A Chilling View of Weimar Berlin
on November 29, 2012
Erich Kastner (1899-1974) is perhaps best known for his children's books, especially the much translated, `Emil and The Detectives'; and through film adaptations of `Lottie and Lisa', the source of Walt Disney's, `The Parent Trap'.
However in `Going to the Dogs' (published as `Fabian', in 1931), Kastner probes the hopelessness, intrigue, and degeneration of Weimar Germany.
Most vivid here is that particular Weimar sense of purposelessness and restlessness which generated (in many) an intense, desperate, seeking. The German concept `sehnsucht' (lit. yearning-addiction), comes to mind. One clearly feels the frustrated longing for what isn't, and perhaps what can not be.
After defeat in 1918, Germany plunged into turmoil which didn't end until Hitler. People were adrift: authority, institutions, and cultural norms lost their force. Dire economic circumstances contributed to a breakdown of structures, engendering vast social and cultural disintegration.
Setting aside its disastrous ending, some very fine art, music, and literature arose (Kurt Weil comes to mind), of which Kastner's work is an important part. Although this novel is little known, it is very much worth reading, especially with (and for) an historical awareness.
One could argue `Going to the Dogs' is not truly a novel, but a series of set pieces, episodes tied together by its protagonist, Jacob Fabian, (likely, in part, Kastner himself), and the city of Berlin. Its best read not for plot, or even character, but for the vital sense of time, place, and milieu it conveys - along with its timeless depictions of flawed human nature.
We meet hypocritical newspaper editors, prostitutes (male and female), naive activists, opportunists, politically enraged drunks shooting pistols, a detached father and absent mother, a depraved husband, a malignantly jealous academic - all in an atmosphere of abundant alcohol and hyper-charged sexuality.
Yet Fabian is not as unaware, or lost (or detached) as he may first seem. Largely, he's a sympathetic character: decent, and oddly enough, a somewhat conservative moralist whom we understand even better now, knowing what was to come.
No, Kastner is not as charming as Zweig, or as polished as Joseph Roth, or as psychologically astute as Schnitzler, but he does provide a unique and invaluable insight, conveyed with a Viennese intensity: a significant of-the-period view of Weimar Berlin, a place where, "Life is a chance, death is a certainty."
Three final points:
The cover art (Christian Schad's `Self Portrait With Model', 1927) is intriguing (note the title block obscures the woman's breast - an unintentional allusion to the censorship of the original edition?) And although we might visualize Fabian as looking like Schad, the grittier art of either Otto Dix of George Grosz might have been more fitting.
Also, a book this important could use a fresh translation as this British-English rendition is at times clumsy. Anthea Bell`s recent translations of Stefan Zweig are light, engaging, and models of clarity: NYRB should have used her talents here as well.
Finally, Rodney Livingstone's introduction is thoughtful and informative, but as is all too common in NYRB titles, its too revealing and should be read as an afterward.